Douglas Bandow — a Senior fellow at the Cato Institute — writes in the Nixon Center’s National Interest that “we are no longer sure” that the possibility of a peninsular war is low:

The Republic of Korea’s president, Lee Myung-bak, has attempted to dampen speculation by announcing his intention to “look into the case in a calm manner.” But the possibility that Pyongyang committed a flagrant and bloody act of war has sent tremors through the ROK. Seoul could ill afford not to react strongly, both to protect its international reputation and prevent a domestic political upheaval.

All economic aid to and investment in the North would end. Diplomatic talks would be halted. Prospects for reconvening the Six-Party Talks would disappear.

Moreover, Seoul might feel the need to respond with force. Even if justified, such action would risk a retaliatory spiral. Where it would end no one could say. No one wants to play out that scenario to its ugly conclusion.

The Yellow Sea incident reemphasizes the fact that North Korean irresponsibility could lead to war. Tensions on the Korean peninsula have risen after President Lee ended the ROK’s “Sunshine Policy”—which essentially provided bountiful subsidies irrespective of Pyongyang’s behavior.

Nevertheless, the threat of war seemingly remained low. Thankfully, the prospect of conflict had dramatically diminished over the last couple of decades. After intermittently engaging in bloody terrorist and military provocations, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea seemed to have largely abandoned direct attacks on South Korea and the United States.

Now we are no longer sure.

Even if the DPRK was not involved in the sinking, only prudence, not principle, prevents the North from engaging in armed instances of brinkmanship. And with Pyongyang in the midst of a leadership transition of undetermined length, where the factions are unclear, different family members could reach for power, and the military might become the final arbiter, the possibility of violence occurring in the North and spilling outward seems real.

Such an outcome would be in no one’s interest, including that of China. So far the People’s Republic of China has taken a largely hands-off attitude towards the North. Beijing has pushed the DPRK to negotiate and backed limited United Nations sanctions. But the PRC has refused to support a potentially economy-wrecking embargo or end its own food and energy subsidies to North Korea.

There are several reasons for China’s stance. At base, Beijing is happier with the status quo than with risking North Korea’s economic stability or the two nations’ political relationship. Washington doesn’t like that judgment. However, changing the PRC’s policy requires convincing Beijing to assess its interest differently. The Yellow Sea incident could help.

Apparently North Korean leader Kim Jong-il is planning to visit China. Speculation is rife about the reason: to request more food aid, promote investment in the North, respond to Beijing’s insistence that the DPRK rejoin the Six-Party Talks or something else?

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